There is no arguing Pep Guardiola has one of football’s beautiful minds.
But if Manchester City are to complete this historic quest for a quadruple, he and the reigning Premier League champions may need to embrace the ugly as they look to reclaim – albeit perhaps only provisionally – the top spot in the table Sunday at Selhurst Park versus Crystal Palace.
City (26-2-4) retained their match in hand on table-topping Liverpool over the weekend as they advanced to the FA Cup final with a 1-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday at Wembley. Gabriel Jesus’ finish in the fourth minute of an inch-perfect cross from Kevin De Bruyne threatened to open the floodgates, but the Cityzens never found a second and had to withstand a challenge from the plucky relegation-threatened side.
After claiming the quadruple would be “impossible” to achieve after that win, City began their Champions League quarterfinal tie at Tottenham Hotspur in the gleaming and renovated White Hart Lane on Tuesday. Here, Guardiola looked to be guilty of the same type of overthinking in last year’s quarterfinal versus Liverpool when it came to lineup selection.
De Bruyne was nowhere to be found in the starting XI, and neither was Leroy Sane. To compound Sane’s absence, Riyad Mahrez’s inclusion meant Raheem Sterling shifted to the left wing – his non-preferred side. These decisions could have been rendered moot had Sergio Aguero put more pace and width on his penalty in the 13th minute, but it was close enough to for Hugo Lloris to punch clear.
All the same, City were on the verge of a great escape in the form of a 0-0 draw, only for Tottenham to strike in the final quarter-hour through Heung-Min Son. Sane and De Bruyne made late cameos in the 89th minute, and the teams will complete their tie next week at the Etihad with Guardiola’s side needing to overturn a 1-0 deficit to advance to the semifinals for the second time in four seasons.
“We will never put our heads down. It was a difficult game,” a defiant Mahrez told the club’s official website. “Even if we drew we still have to win our game at home so it doesn’t change our approach.”
“You don’t expect to arrive in a semi-final or quarter-final first leg and win 0-3,” Guardiola added. “We have another option, another chance and that is the point. I didn’t expect to come here and solve the situation – we would like to score a goal, we know how important it is, but the situation is what it is.
“The team, honestly, when we don’t play good, and you guys say we are not good, but I didn’t have that feeling. Especially most of the time in the first half, the second half we made a good build up, as a team we pressed a lot. It’s just the quality they have and they score a goal.”
Guardiola will likely rotate his lineup, which likely includes Benjamin Mendy playing left back over Fabian Delph and Gabriel Jesus as the centre-forward over Aguero. Sane and De Bruyne likely will return to the starting XI, though Bernardo Silva could miss a second straight match through injury after sitting out Tuesday’s defeat. John Stones could also return in central defence with Nicolas Otamendi making way in the back four, and there is a chance Ederson could be rested after suffering a hip pointer between the sticks versus Tottenham.
Manchester City have the opportunity to put the screws to Liverpool once more since the Reds kick off against Chelsea shortly after this match ends. And City will not underestimate Crystal Palace (11-6-16) considering they are the only English team to win at the Etihad this term.
Roy Hodgson’s team earned a famous 3-2 upset Dec. 22, with Andros Townsend’s 30-yard thunderbolt in the 35th minute giving Palace the lead for good. Luka Milivojevic added a penalty early in the second half, and a late charge by City fell short after De Bruyne pulled one back on 85 minutes.
Milivojevic’s proficiency from the spot is a key reason Crystal Palace are all but mathematically assured of staying in the top flight. The Serbia international became just the fifth player in the Premier League era to score 10 goals via penalties in a season after sending Martin Dubravka the wrong way in the 81st minute of Palace’s 1-0 victory at Newcastle United last weekend.
Wilfried Zaha drew the attempt when he was knocked to the pitch by Magpies defender DeAndre Yedlin, the sixth time the Ivory Coast international has gifted Milivojevic the chance to convert from 12 yards. And Milivojevic has made all but one of his 11 attempts.
“I can’t say I don’t want the record!” the midfielder told The Daily Mail. “It’s not really in my power but when we get a penalty, it’s my job to score. This season we’ve had many, many penalties. It’s not by accident, it happens because we have a lot of quality players who get in the box, so we’re very dangerous in these situations.”
Andy Johnson set the Premier League mark with 11 for Crystal Palace in 2004-05. Milivojevic joined a select list that includes Alan Shearer (Blackburn Rovers 1994-95), Frank Lampard (Chelsea 2009-10) and Steven Gerrard (Liverpool 2013-14) to reach double figures.
Palace have never done the double over City in the Premier League era, and the win in December ended an eight-match winless spell (0-1-7) against them in all competitions. Palace held out for a scoreless draw in last season’s match at Selhurst Park, and City are 6-2-2 there in all competitions in the Premier League era.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Crystal Palace 0, Manchester City 3.
(Raheem Sterling photo courtesy Raheem Sterling official Twitter account)